A Language Of Our Own

March 2017

By Bob Haskell
(read online digital version)

From private to general officer, service members often speak in a tongue foreign to those who have never worn the uniform

“Can I buy a vowel?”

Poor Bill Rago. He’s a civilian who finds himself on an Army training post where all of the “kids carry guns,” which he was expecting, and where English is spoken in a different manner, which he was not.

“Captain Murdoch’s not at the AEC. Captain Murdoch’s at the ARC,” the military policeman informs Bill. “Look. Here’s what you do. Go right here. Take another right at the PX. Go half a click ’til you see the DPTM Center. Then take a left. If ya hit the RFPC, you’ve gone too far.”

That prompts the bewildered and exasperated Rago, played by Danny DeVito, to ask the vowel question early in the 1994 movie Renaissance Man. The initialisms might as well be Greek to Bill because he’s not accustomed to the way many in the Army speak.

But he learns the lingo, as does everyone who serves in the armed forces, or in many professions, for that matter, where acronyms are part of the language and the life.

Fact is, it’s almost impossible to contemplate communication without them. Imagine how much more paper the Pentagon would use if everyone had to write, for example, North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Office of the Secretary of Defense every time. Imagine the nightmare of preparing and reading PowerPoint slides without being able to rely on NATO and OSD. Imagine texting without acronyms.

Even better, imagine the red faces if the acronyms “snafu” and “fubar” were fully expressed in polite company. (For the record, they mean, sort of, “Situational Normal, All Fouled Up” and “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.”)

Acronyms are everywhere—in business, science, medicine and, of course, the military.

It’s practically impossible to know them all because they just keep on coming. The February 2017 DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms devotes 121 pages to abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms, from A&P, “Analysis and Production,” to ZULU, “time zone indicator for Universal Time.”

And they become ingrained in the culture.

Captain: “I’m going TDY. You’re the NCOIC. Everything squared away?”

First Sergeant: “Yes, sir. Sergeant Jones has to clean his SAW before he PCSes CONUS. I told him to get some chow at the DFAC first.”

Captain: “I want that weapon turned in ASAP. Tell Jones to get an MRE later.”

If you were bystander and not of the culture, you’d probably want to jump in your POV and get some R&R.

What are acronyms? That depends on who you ask.

The purists maintain that an acronym is “a word formed from the initial letters of other words,” the definition in the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary. NATO, scuba, radar and laser are commonly cited examples. So are MASH, thanks to the iconic movie and television series, and AWOL, which has been with us since World War I.

Others include initialisms, such as CIA, DoD, FBI and IRS, in the lexicon of acronyms that people commonly use as if they are actual words.

“The word acronym has always included initialisms,” explains linguist David Wilton of Texas A&M University, who in 2004 authored the book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. “Some people make the distinction between acronyms as those that can be pronounced as words and initials as something separate. That distinction is not universally observed. The general usage has always [included] the two.”

What that apparently means is that NGAUS is a form of acronym because it is frequently pronounced as a word—NAW-Gus—while NGB (the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon) has remained an initialism that, per Wilton’s guidance, is, nonetheless, considered an acronym.

Linguists have actually devised 13 categories of acronyms, and similar abbreviations. They include: pronounced as a word containing only initial letters; pronounced as a word containing noninitial letters, such as SITREP and Nabisco, for National Biscuit Company; and pronounced as a string of letters with a short cut. Think “triple A” for such AAA standbys as anti-aircraft artillery and the American Automobile Association.

The 13 groupings do not include backronyms, phrases that are constructed “after the fact” from previously existing words, or contrived acronyms that are deliberately fashioned to define that which is being named. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 has been cited as an example of both: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

How’s that for a mouthful?

The backronym for SPAM, “Something Posing As Meat,” was said to originate from soldiers who were sick of eating canned meat, points out Caroline Taggart in New Words for Old: Recycling Our Language for the Modern World.

More current soldiers have had similar fun coming up with back-ronyms for current field rations, calling MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) “Meals Rejected by Everyone,” “Meals, Refusing to Exit” and even “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians” (in reference to the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia).

Acronyms have been studied seriously. They are considered absolutely essential for condensing and streamlining communications. They have served as the ties that identify people with specific organizations, cliques or clubs. And they have been regarded with disdain, disgust and humor. YABA, for “Yet Another Bloody Acronym,” reflects one or more of those attitudes. YABA-compatible indicates that the acronym can be pronounced without offending anyone.

Acronyms predate the Christian era.

Take the Roman Empire. Its official name, and the republic before it, was abbreviated SPQR for Senatus Populusque Romanus.

The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is called the Tanakh, an acronym from the Hebrew initial letters of its three major sections:

Torah, “Teaching;” Nevi’im, “Prophets;” and Ketuvim, “Writings.” Initialisms have been around since the 19th century. It wasmuch easier to paint RF&P on the sides of boxcars than Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, says an item in a 1943 volume American Notes and Queries. AT&T was a logical and convenient abbreviation for American Telephone and Telegraph Company in agate-type newspaper listings. And, Wilton explains, GTDHD, for “Give The Devil His Due,” was an example of the initialism fad in newspapers during the 1830s.

But acronyms as most Americans now know them have a short history compared to most other aspects of our language. The trend is only 100 years old or so. Yes, the late 19th century did produce a smattering of acronyms, Wilton observes. The earliest English acronym that he knows of was colindery, or colinderies, that originated from the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in 1886 in London. That one, it seems, didn’t last long.

Otherwise, “forming words from acronyms is a distinctly 20th (and now 21st) century phenomenon,” Wilton says.

Acronyms, he believes, are not unique to the American culture or the English language. “I’d be hard pressed to make an actual numerical comparison, but in some countries they’re extremely popular,” he says. To wit, Gestapo is short for Geheime Staatspolizei, or the Nazi secret state police.

“I think acronyms really got their start in the United States. Then I think other countries kind of picked up after that,” Wilton adds. “With World War II, with American dominance in the post-war world, with economics and trade, basically English has become the global language. And I think that’s kind of what pushed all of the other languages to pick up on the phenomenon.”

This is an approximate timeline for acronym development:

  • A smattering as the 19th century segued into the 20th. Nabisco, for example, appears in 1901;
  • Limited usage during World War I. AEF has survived as the initialism for American Expeditionary Forces, but those initials now also stand for air expeditionary force;
  • An alphabet soup of initialisms, including NRA, WPA, CCC, SSA and TVA, stirred up in the 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation during the Great Depression;
  • An explosion of military acronyms by GIs as well as the brass during World War II; and
  • A proliferation created by more government and civilian agencies beginning in the 1950s. NASA, OPEC and AIDS certainly come to mind.

The flood gates have remained wide open.

“The U.S. military uses many unique items and concepts that civilians aren’t exposed to. Because of this and the need for expedient, clear communication, service members are immersed in a linguistic world apart from the daily life of a civilian,” states Military.com. “Acronyms are commonly used to make big concepts easy to communicate.”

AWOL is an intriguing example. The expression “absent without leave” has been traced back to the Civil War, but it was always written out, Wilton explains. AWOL became the acronym during the First World War and it has remained with us.

However, some people made it a backronym, standing for “After Women Or Liquor” or “A Wolf On the Loose,” relates author Alan Axelrod.

“What else produces so many words, acronyms, and utterances than fighting wars and preparing to fight wars?” posits Axelrod in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: The Real Language of the Modern American Military. Anyone familiar with military-speak knows what that title’s first three words really mean.

“Over many years, soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have built their own language to express everything from the raw emotion to complex technology,” Axelrod states.

The language has been functional, colorful and inventive, especially that which originated from the troops. Some examples:

  • BCGs: Birth Control Glasses
  • FIGMO: F*** It. Got My Orders.
  • ISOFAC: Isolation Facility
  • JEEPs: Junior Enlisted Expendable Personnel
  • RORO: Roll-On, Roll-Off
  • WTFO: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Over

World War II troops and their sweethearts back home conveyed intimate messages with postal acronyms frequently written on the backs of envelopes, such as HOLLAND: Hope Our Love Lives And Never Dies; MALAYA: My Ardent Lips Await Your Arrival; and CHIP: Come Home I’m Pregnant.

They were either too embarrassed to write the messages down in full or they thought the letters would get read and censored.

All of the above underscore an observation by Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio program and podcast A Way With Words. “You use acronyms and most slang and most novelty words for an ironic purpose, for a joke, to show membership to an ingroup. That is, you want to show that you belong,” he said.

Which brings us back to Bill Rago, who has clearly embraced the Army and its lingo deep into Renaissance Man.

A flower deliveryman asks Bill how to find the base chapel.

Bill quickly responds, “Go back around the curve ’til you reach the PX, you hang a right. You come to that line of APCs, you turn left. You go about a half a click, you come to the RFPC building. It’s right around back. Got it?”

And Bill goes on his way with a self-satisfied “Yeah.” He now knows he belongs.

BOB HASKELL is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He may be contacted at magazine@ngaus.org.